The UK government’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has announced that it will conduct a further investigation into the use of Huawei technology in the country’s communications networks.
The NCSC’s decision follows the US government’s ratcheting up of its actions against Huawei, and Chinese vendors in general, in recent weeks.
On 14 May, US president Donald Trump extended an executive order, signed a year earlier, that effectively banned US companies from using telecommunications equipment made by firms said to pose a national security risk, in effect companies such as Huawei and ZTE.
This was ramped up by the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security’s announcement on 22 May that China’s Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science and eight Chinese companies – including Huawei – would be added to the Entity List, which will result in these parties facing new restrictions on access to US technology.
The UK has, to date, declined to take similar action and in January 2020 decided to authorise limited use of so-called high-risk suppliers in the radio access element of networks, but to ban their use in the core.
That decision came after the UK government asked the NCSC to consider issuing guidance to UK telecoms operators in relation to high-risk suppliers – defined as those that pose greater security and resilience risks to UK telecoms networks, with Chinese firms ZTE and Huawei commonly regarded as key examples.
The NCSC had, in March 2019, under then prime minister Theresa May, approved the use of Huawei’s networking equipment in non-core parts of future 5G mobile networks, incurring the wrath of key allies around the world, particularly the US.
Even a limited ban would have significant commercial effects. BT has noted that meeting UK government restrictions introduced in January on the use of Huawei equipment in the periphery of the network would see all Huawei kit gone before 2023, but at an estimated cost of £500m over five years.
Yet despite the UK government passing regulations that would permit so-called high-risk foreign tech suppliers’ products to be used in the access part of UK mobile networks, if not the core, UK MPs announced in March 2020 the formation of a sub-committee to probe the security of 5G networks.
And now it looks like the UK is aligning itself more closely with the US after the NCSC confirmed that it was conducting a fresh review into the use of Huawei technology in UK networks.
Talking to The Independent newspaper in the UK, an NCSC spokesperson said: “The security and resilience of our networks is of paramount importance. Following the US announcement of additional sanctions against Huawei, the NCSC is looking carefully at any impact they could have to the UK’s networks.”
Huawei retorted that reports of a fresh probe by the UK did not make sense. “We’ve seen the reports from unnamed sources which simply don’t make sense,” said Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang. “The government decided in January to approve our part in the 5G roll-out, because Britain needs the best possible technologies, more choice, innovation and more suppliers, all of which means more secure and more resilient networks.
“Our priority remains to continue the roll-out of a reliable and secure 5G network across Britain. We are happy to discuss with the NCSC any concerns they may have and hope to continue the close working relationship we have enjoyed for the last 10 years.”